The Treasure of Avon Hill
FEW PROJECTS RECEIVED more local press than the mansion that went up at 37 Lancaster Street in Cambridge in the spring of 1887. “[It] will be as fine as anything upon Cambridge Heights,” the Cambridge Tribune proclaimed on June 18 of that year. In fact, the Tribune ran no fewer than five stories on the edifice, soon known as the Yerxa house, after its owner, Henry Yerxa.
[sidebar]As a partner in the largest retail grocery chain in New England, Yerxa was a member of Boston’s new business class. He involved himself with local politics and was president of the Cambridge Parks Commission, where he persuaded the board to create the parkway that is now Memorial Drive. When Yerxa sought to build a new home for his family on swanky Avon Hill, he hired the popular Boston architecture firm Hartwell and Richardson, known for its fashionable high-end homes.
But once design was under way, Yerxa discovered that his neighbor had enlisted the same architects to create an estate for himself. Perhaps an unspoken one-upmanship led Yerxa to demand a redesign late in the game. Then, plagued by buyer’s remorse, he fired his first builder, ultimately hiring Parkage and Littlefield to finish the job nearly three years after construction had begun, at a cost of $25,000.
Yerxa easily won the design duel. His 7,800-square-foot residence showcased every state-of-the-art Victorian amenity, including electricity, indoor plumbing, and a central intercom for calling maids. Designed in the shingle style, the house was “one of the best illustrations of modern architecture…” trumpeted the Tribune on August 11, 1888. Although it featured turrets, balconies, verandas, and dormers, all were wrapped in wood shingles. The simple wrapper made the home appear strong, staid, and confident from the outside.
Inside, however, it was a delicate beauty. Upon entering the house, visitors were stunned by the richness of the details. No surface went unadorned: The interior was a symphony of mahogany, white oak, cherry, cypress, and African pommele sapele woods. Beyond the intricate casework were deeply embossed friezes, lattice-woven oak screens, handcarved newel posts (no two alike), 10 uniquely finished fireplaces, hand-stenciled and glazed ceilings, and stained-glass windows, some reaching two stories high. Equally stunning were the gas and electric wrought-iron light fixtures and matching andirons, all designed specifically for the home.
In 1921, William and Dorothy Field fell in love with the house and purchased it from the Yerxas. (Family lore tells us that William offered his wife a choice of the house or a new ring; she chose the house.) Impressed with the completeness of the design, they even bought the furniture, some of which had been made for the home.
For the next 89 years, the Fields were dutiful stewards of the Victorian masterpiece. For Dorothy, it was a place to enjoy her growing family. For her five children and nine grandchildren, the strange and opulent mansion was simply magical. Pamela Worden, one of the grandchildren, recalls waking up Christmas mornings to a two-story tree on the oversize stair landing, fully decorated by